Sneaky Air Saboteurs

When something goes wrong, clarinetists have a lot we can point the finger at – reeds, mouthpieces, ligatures, slippery hands…the list is endless!

But the majority of the time clarinetists encounter problems, it’s usually the same culprit – air!

Air is the driving force behind everything we do, and there are many sneaky air saboteurs which can impede your progress. Here are a few to be aware of while you practice:

  • Improper chin position. Your chin should be parallel to the floor when you play. If you dip your head too low or raise it too high, you are obstructing air flow.
  • Taking teacup breaths. Imagine you’re at a fancy tea party. You nosh on delicious scones and crumpets and raise your pinky finger delicately as you sip politely from a china teacup. Now, do the complete opposite when you play clarinet! Dainty “teacup” breaths are ineffective – you need to quickly and completely fill your lungs. (Check out my article on why we should all act like Nintendo’s Kirby when we play.)
  • Not entirely filling your lungs. It is nearly impossible to overfill your lungs (without the use of medical equipment, of course). Make sure you take plenty of time to inhale, and when it feels like you can’t hold any more air, breathe in just a bit more!
  • Undiagnosed air leaks. One of my clarinet pet peeves is air leaks, or when air slips out of pockets in the embouchure. Not only does the player sound like Darth Vader, but it also expels valuable air which could go into the production of beautiful phrases! Take some time to evaluate your embouchure and make sure you don’t have an air leak.
  • Not exhaling before the inhale. A good breath always begins with exhaling the stale air from your lungs. Take a few seconds before you begin playing to exhale, inhale, and repeat as many times as necessary until you feel ready to play.
  • Breathing whenever there is a rest instead of breathing out of physical necessity. Music is full of psychological traps – slowing down when we play softer, speeding up when we play louder, and taking a breath when we see a rest, regardless of whether or not we actually need to breathe. Fight the urge, lest you fall victim to the dreaded lunglock!

Take a deep breath and apply these changes for more productive music-making. Happy practicing!

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